Thursday, April 1, 2010

Needing to do More?

One of the effects of the recent attacks against the Pope is the shaking of the faith of the Catholic laity.  I've had people tell me that the Church "needs to do more" about the sexual abuse existing in the Church.

Such statements are understandable, yes, in light of the coverage of the Church in the secular media.  However, the coverage of the Church is rather flawed.  Perhaps it is deliberate, perhaps it is caused by negligence on the part of those who report these things.  However, the difference between what is the case and what is alleged is often large.

The Case of What Was

Prior to 2001, the document which governed the issue of sexual abuse was Crimen sollicitationis.  [While commonly believed that this document came into being in 1962, this was an updating of a document from 1922].  The assumption made was that the diocese was responsible for handling investigations, though the requirements were for the Vatican to be notified of all procedures (see 66-70).  It was also required for the victim to come forward within 30 days of the solicitation (see 15-18).

Now, we now know in retrospect that these laws were flawed.  It overlooked the possibility of a bishop just wanting to avoid a confrontation, or a bishop interested in careerism seeking to avoid a scandal, failing to do his duty and merely transferring the problematic priest away.  It also overlooked the problem of social differences.  People who would think that Fr. X was a fine upstanding priest might look at the legitimate victim as a liar because the priest was an upstanding person.  This reasoning was arguing in a circle of course, and worked against the victim.

The system as it was meant well, but could be exploited and when exploited, it left the victim with little recourse to appeal.

However, this was a problem in society and not just in the Church.  In the schools and in other places, this kind of exploitation had the same flaws.  Public School teachers who were predators, for example, could make use of the same assumptions that a teacher would never do such a thing.

The Case of What Is

Now that we have become sadder and wiser, we know that sexual predators do seek out positions to be in contact with their victims, and that such individuals can be quite exploitative and manipulative in defending themselves.  We now know that there are certain things which can be warning signs, and things which can prevent it.

When I worked for a parish in 2008, I was obligated to go through a background check and to undergo training called VIRTUS.  This was not training to keep people from becoming abusers.  This was training to help those who worked in a parish be aware of danger signs where children could be exploited.  No person was to be alone with a minor.  Doors were to be kept open or else have uncovered windows, and so on.  We were taught that when dealing with an accusation, our role was to provide a safe environment for the youth to report the abuse [no accusations of lying for example] and to make sure such accusations were brought to the proper authorities.

Such rules were not just about the old "Cover your @#$" mentality.  It was to make us aware of warning signs of abuse victims and of abusers.  The intent was to prevent abuse before it could begin and to end ongoing abuse as quickly as it was discovered  Certainly there were things I had learned that previously I would have thought was harmless.

Thankfully, during my time at the parish, there was no abuse.  However those of us who were on the staff were certainly made aware of potential avenues for abuse and were committed to preventing it if warning signs should occur.

The thing is, these programs were not done because of state mandate, nor because of concerned individuals seeking to defend children.  Rather, they were done at the orders of the Church itself.

Timelines and Perspectives are Important

We need to realize something about the abuse cases.  While there were some rumblings of problems in the Church in the 1990s, nobody expected the problem to be as wide as it was in America.  [it accounted for 80% of the 3000+ cases which were dropped on the CDF desk in 2003].  These cases went as far back as the 1950s.  Now however, it seems there are about 250 cases a year which need to be dealt with (America makes up 25% of these cases).

This may seem like a large amount [and it is when one remembers that even one case is too many], but we need to remember that there are over 400,000 priests in the world.  So in proportion to the number of priests, the annual number of offenders make up about 0.0625% of the total number of priests.

Facts vs. Yellow Journalism

Now don't get me wrong here.  I am NOT saying that because the number is so small, it is unimportant.  Of course it is important and every victim who suffers is one too many.  However, the issue here is that the media coverage leads one to believe that every priest is an abuser or a potential abuser.

Now it is indeed a scandal that there were 3000 cases which the CDF had to look at in backlog, and it is a scandal that many of those responsible to investigate failed in their duty.  However, it does indicate a lot of false reporting on the part of the media when it seeks to imply that the Church does nothing.

CNS news has a graphic of how the CDF handled the cases of sexual abuse beginning in 2001.  In 80% of the cases, disciplinary action was handed down automatically, whether automatic laicization (20% of this group) or other restrictions (80% of this group)

In the other 20% of these cases, there were Church trials.  This would be the group where some of the wrongly accused fit in, and these were acquitted.  Others received limitations to their ministry and some were outright laicized. 

 cases (Source: CNS News)

Making Sense of the Graph

Now some might ask, "why not 100% laicized?"  The answer is of course that laicization is to be limited to certain groups of the guilty and not just of the accused.  The 1983 code of Canon Law says:

Can. 1387 A priest who in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession solicits a penitent to sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is to be punished, according to the gravity of the delict, by suspension, prohibitions, and privations; in graver cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state.

In other words, the penalty has to fit the gravity of the crime.  If a crime is extremely serious, then laicization is what is to be done.  However, if the crime is lesser, lesser restrictions must be applied.  This assumes proof of guilt of course.  The Church requires proof of accusations, and also, as an institution which is required to forgive the truly repentant sinner, those who have truly repented can be released from their censure or have it reduced, as Canon Law points out:

Can. 1347 Sect. 1. A censure cannot be imposed validly unless the offender has been warned at least once beforehand to withdraw from contumacy and has been given a suitable time for repentance.

Sect. 2. An offender who has truly repented of the delict and has also made suitable reparation for damages and scandal or at least has seriously promised to do so must be considered to have withdrawn from contumacy.

So the penalty the Church imposes depends on the evidence and the level of repentance the defendant shows.  By repentance, we mean someone who is truly sorry for what they did and wants to atone for their acts.

Of course, due to recidivism, one who was guilty of such acts cannot be permitted to resume contact with the type of people he victimized, so even without laicization, restrictions are required.  This brings context to the graph.  In the 80% of the cases where action was taken without trial we see:

  • 20% were immediately laicized
  • 80% were restricted
  • 0% were acquitted.

In other words, with the 80% of the 3,000 cases which evidence was overwhelming, the issue was the appropriate censure.

In the remaining 20% of the cases which went to trial, the information tells us:

  • 85% of those cases resulted in a conviction and some sort of censure
  • 15% of those cases resulted in an acquittal.

In other words, Out of 3,000 cases, 97% were censured in some way depending on their level of repentance or failure to repent and of their danger.  3% of these cases resulted in acquittal.

Putting it in context

The abuse which did occur are monstrous acts which harmed the youth who were victimized.  It is truly a shame that such individuals existed in the Church, and also shameful that some individuals sought to kick the problem under the carpet rather than to do what Church law required.

However, to say the Church "needs to do more" is to demonstrate a lack of knowledge as to what the Church has done in response to the information brought to their attention.

  • In response to the fact that 60% of the victims were male adolescents, the Church has become much stricter on the admission of homosexuals to the seminaries
  • In response to the fact that many victims were laboring against the alleged reputation of the predator, the Church has mandated that the local churches have a way to bring their cases to the right authorities
  • In response to the clergy and bishops who tried to ignore the issue, the Church has made the CDF the group which oversees these cases.
  • In response to the fact that the old system could take years to remove a priest, the Church has reformed its laws with the ability to quickly remove an individual.

In other words, those who say the Church should do more are those who do not have an understanding of what was the procedure in the past and what is the procedure now.


There were 3,000 cases investigated which were backlogged from the 1950s.  However, to listen to the media, one would get the impression there were 3,000 cases per year.  This is a distortion, whether one from sloppiness or one from malice.

The current estimate is an average of 250 cases a year to investigate [Investigate… not necessarily 250 guilty priests a year].  Now, unfortunately, because people are sinners, we will not be able to make that number zero.  The Church, however, is seeking to eliminate such cases and conditions which facilitate them.

In comparison (I do not bring this up as a tu quoque but rather as a way to put this in perspective), there is a large number of cases of sexual abuse in the public schools (it was reported that one in four girls, and one in eight boys, are sexually abused in or out of school before the age of 18 according to the 1986 AMA study).  In these cases, few abusers were ever reported to authorities, and it is estimated that only 35% of these cases ever resulted in any sanctions whatsoever.  1% involved dismissal. In the 2002 NYT article "Silently Shifting Teachers in Sex Abuse Cases", we see the statement:

No federal laws bar schools from permitting teachers accused of sexual misconduct in one jurisdiction from resuming teaching in another jurisdiction, but in recent years, state legislatures have moved to address the problem. At least two, Michigan and California, bar school districts from settling charges against teachers by promising to keep accusations of abuse secret.

In other words, the Church is condemned for a culture of abuse when in fact US federal law does not have in place any of the basic protections the Church has.  What the Church was denounced for their bishops doing in the 1950s through the 1980s are acts which are legal in the United States Public Schools.

Yes, even one case of sexual abuse is one case too many.  However, let us keep perspective here, and recognize what the Catholic Church has done and is doing in comparison to that which is not done in other institutions.

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